Read option is back in NFL and better than ever
By ARNIE STAPLETON
Tim Tebow has been out with two broken ribs and maybe a bruised ego.
The read-option lives, however, in Washington, Carolina and San Francisco, where NFL coaches are dusting off the old college formations to capitalize on the skills of quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.
Nobody’s going all-in like the Denver Broncos did last year when it became apparent that Tebow, with his messy mechanics, wasn’t going to win as a pocket passer. Instead, teams are sprinkling in the read-option offense to confuse defenses and create running and passing lanes alike, and that makes their traditional play calls all the more effective.
Coaches say it’s not a fad, either. This time, it’s here to stay.
The Redskins’ creativity was on display Monday night in their 17-16 win over the New York Giants as RGIII repeatedly put the ball in running back Alfred Morris’ belly and either let go or pulled it back to run it himself — or even pull up and hit wide-open receivers darting through broken coverages.
That led to both crowing and cringing by ESPN analyst Steve Young, who entered the league as an eager scrambler and left as a pocket passer with a championship and a ticket to the Hall of Fame.
Young said RGIII will eventually have to morph into more of a prototypical passer to prolong his career and reach his enormous potential, but Young nonetheless marveled at watching “NFL defenses truly indecisive.”
“It’s fun to see something new that really is putting people in a jam,” Young said.
Griffin ran for 72 yards to get to 714 for the season, passing Newton for most by a rookie quarterback. He threw the go-ahead 8-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the fourth quarter on a read-option play.
The Redskins, Panthers and 49ers have the quarterbacks to use heavier doses of the read-option out of the shotgun formation, where the running back is parallel to the quarterback, or in the pistol, where the running back lines up behind the quarterback.
“People say you can’t run the option in the NFL, but we’re proving you can,” said Griffin, who even ran a triple option Monday night. “It’s not something that’s our bread and butter, but you can sprinkle it in now and then.”
Therein lies the dilemma for defenses: the threat of the option reduces their preparation for the traditional plays that make up the bulk of their opponents’ offensive game plan.
“Teams have to prepare for it,” Griffin said. “They spend however (much) amount of time preparing for it and how to stop it, and that’s what helps us open up the rest of our playbook outside of it.
“Coaches take a certain pride in shutting down what they call college stuff. They take pride in that. It doesn’t bother me. We can run it two times a game. We can run it 15 times a game.”
As with anything else that’s good, moderation is the key.
The Panthers have dialed down their use of the option to simplify things for Newton, and the 49ers are giving opponents a new wrinkle to prepare for by using some pistol formations like the ones Kaepernick ran at the University of Nevada.
The Panthers added several new twists in the playbook during the offseason figuring opposing defenses would be better prepared to stop Newton, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. But midway through the season, with Newton struggling to produce, coach Ron Rivera and his staff decided to scale back the playbook.
One of the things the Panthers did to help Newton was reduce the number of zone read option plays — ones where Newton has to make a split-second decision on whether to run or handoff. It’s paid off in better performances over the last month.
“These last few weeks he has played like the guy that we believe he can become,” Rivera said.
Broncos coach John Fox, who’s enjoying watching the precise passer he now has in Peyton Manning, said quarterbacks are coming out of college bigger, faster and more athletic than ever before.
NFL teams will find ways to capitalize on all those attributes from scramblers too athletic to get hemmed in the pocket — at least while they’re young, because eventually they’re all forced to rely more on their arm as age and ailments catch up.
“Most people don’t count on the quarterback being a viable option,” Fox said. “When you have that ability, it opens your run game. How long it will stay around, how long it will be? It’s legit. It creates problems.”
One problem for teams with the versatile quarterback, however, is that they are exposing $100 million investments and the most valuable player on their teams in the run game, where all protections for the passer are nullified. Once the QB commits to the run, opponents are free to smack him in the head, dive at his knees, throw him to the ground.
Fox said that doesn’t necessarily mean the read-option is more hazardous to their health.
“I can’t really say that because you expose the quarterback in the pocket passing probably more than any time,” Fox said, “because his eyes are down the field, he’s watching routes progress. So, remind people that that can expose a quarterback pretty heavily, as well. You just look at the numbers of quarterbacks lost through time in the pocket.”
Not just anyone can run the option, though.
“There’s no doubt when you’re asking him to run the ball he’d better be real fast or big enough to take hits,” Fox said. “That’s the fine line.”
In his last game as a Bronco, a 45-10 playoff loss at New England, Tebow played through rib, lung and chest injuries he sustained on a third-quarter tackle. (He’s recently been sidelined with broken ribs but said he’s not sure when he got hurt, only that it happened on offense and not in his role as a personal punt protector.)
Griffin, who’s listed at 217 pounds — 28 pounds lighter than Newton — took a beating earlier this season, and one reason was that he’s so good at pretending he still has the ball after handing it off, giving defenders freedom to clobber him. There were plays, said left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, that Griffin looked sprawled “like a question mark” on the field after a tackle.
The solution was to tone down the trickery, stop extending the fake after handing off and have him put his hands in the air instead. While that advice goes against years of coaching that says a quarterback should sell deception as long as possible, it’s helped reduce the number of hard hits the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has taken.
Read-option quarterbacks also need to learn when to slide or get out of bounds to protect themselves when keeping the ball. Tebow was probably the best college quarterback ever to operate the option during his time at Florida, but NFL linemen and linebackers are bigger, faster, stronger — and hit harder.
In one game last year, Tebow was hit 17 times. In another, he ran it 22 times, more than any NFL quarterback since 1950, prompting Vikings coach Leslie Frazier to crack that he’d like to get his star tailback Adrian Peterson that many touches.
“There’s not a person in the league that says, ‘Hey, sign me up for a car accident every play,’” Griffin said. “But we know what we signed up for.”
Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who burnished his head coaching credentials as the architect of the turn-back-the-clock offense in Denver last year, ran the option just one time while he was a quarterback at the University of Utah two decades ago.
“Yeah, I called it once up in Wyoming and I broke my collarbone and my first rib,” McCoy recalled.
It’s not for everybody, but for those teams with the quarterbacks who can do it, the option is turning out to be, well, a great option in today’s pass-happy NFL.
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